[8 October 2007]
There will always be an inconclusive argument standing in favor of the ‘60s and ‘70s being the best musical decades of all-time. While verbal jousting with a bias for personal preference will always leave the argument without a winner, one aspect that remains indisputable was the tendency for notorious songwriters of the ‘60s and ‘70s to release albums very frequently, in several cases more than one album per year. Not only that, but influential artists like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin released albums that are now deemed as classics in near six-month successions of one another. It remains ironic that, though music technology has undoubtedly increased, new artists typically release one album every two or three years.
When I come across a contemporary artist like Spencer Krug who releases something musically-related nearly as often as he brushes his teeth, two things come to my mind. One is how (or if) he manages to find times of leisure. The other is why other modern singular songwriters can’t be more like Krug, releasing quality albums without a flinch or long delay. Considering that his extremely innovative style is so original that it would be labeled as oddball pop regardless of the reflective decade, it almost seems like Krug got stuck in the wrong era.
Whether your own discovery of Krug was caused by his being one of the founding members of Frog Eyes, half of the widely acclaimed Wolf Parade, his inclusion in the indie supergroup Swan Lake, or by randomly clicking on this review, Krug’s reputation has spread like wildfire since Wolf Parade’s debut in 2005. Though his meritorious musicianship and wry, darkly humorous lyrical output was already known among veteran fans of Frog Eyes, Wolf Parade’s Apologies to the Queen Mary shined new light on Krug’s previously uncovered solo outlet in Sunset Rubdown. With an LP already under his belt prior to the release of Apologies, Krug found himself in a new position with his solo project surrounded with much anticipation. When he released his second album, Shut Up I Am Dreaming, just ten months after his debut, it was greeted with a similar amount of acclaim to that of Wolf Parade. In a seemingly tireless fashion, Krug had supplied vital songwriting contributions to Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, Frog Eyes, and Swan Lake in less than two years, casually becoming one of the most consistent and revered figures in indie-rock.
With such a wildly successful track record, it would make little sense for Spencer Krug to change his stylistic delivery for Sunset Rubdown’s third album, Random Spirit Lover. While Random Spirit Lover is a continuation of Krug’s ardent delivery with howling vocals, melodically echoing keys, flexible guitar progressions, and multifarious synths, it is also the most ambitious album Krug has contributed to in his entire career. And yes, that includes his work with the capricious Carey Mercer. With most of the songs on the album exceeding over five minutes in length, there is no room on Random Spirit Lover for even one song of a fairly conventional nature.
While Krug was never one to conform to predictable ideals, he previously displayed use of traditional structures on tracks like “They Took a Vote and Said No” and Wolf Parade’s “Fancy Claps”. While such fun, accessible tracks served as valuable assets to Krug’s eventual exposure, it occasionally weighed him down in relation to his artistic consistency. In Random Spirit Lover, it appears that he has finally reached a point in his career where full-on experimentation is not as risky in regard to his effecting his reputation. Without a leading, immediately engaging single, Krug’s goal appears to be fixated on crafting an album that is held together strongly by pure innovation, regardless of the epically sprawling nature of the included tracks. Perhaps that’s the reason why the shrewdly crafted Random Spirit Lover is the most satisfying batch of songs Krug has ever released.
Photo: Yannick Grandmont
For fans of the prolific “The Men Are Called Horseman There” on Shut Up I Am Dreaming, the majority of Random Spirit Lover will come off as immediately satisfying. Not only is Krug once again focused on treating instruments like building blocks, throwing various melodies on top of one another through various works of instrumentation, but numerous tracks on the album are representative of Krug’s inherent ability to craft emotionally wounding build-ups. As the bustling opener, “The Mending of the Gown”, displays with frequent changes in tempo over agile guitar progressions and pounding keys, the song sounds as if it is about to erupt chaotically at any moment throughout the entire duration. As he hollers, screeches, and even somewhat yodels into a heavily reverbed microphone, his vocals play off like an instrument of their own, impeccably reflecting the corresponding tempo and pitch of the backing melodies. It’s remarkable how these complex melodies are introduced so subtly, often in the beginning of each song with a sole instrument.
Like Krug also shows on “Winged/Wicked Things” with a slight strain of synth and “Stallion” with a trickle of keys, he works with an initial melody and then expands it into several modified arrangements until dozens of different layers are fluidly implemented into one. While such an expansive sound has been previously criticized due to Krug’s lo-fi methods of production, Random Spirit Lover remains quite polished despite the dexterous use of various effects and instruments. At the very least, it is a large step up from the production of Sunset Rubdown’s debut, Snake’s Got a Leg, where Krug used nothing but a standard computer and one default microphone.
Considering that “Winged/Wicked Things” has been a live favorite for months, fans will be pleased to know that Krug has merely perfected the crowd-pleaser. Though it eventually begins with minimal accompaniments of keys and synths, a stampede of percussion over the shrill progression of an electric guitar signifies the beginning of a lengthily rewarding chorus. The song simply refuses to lose intensity from that point on, and, in what seems to be Krug trademark, he continues to use treble synth lines as bridges of sorts, connecting the various melodies through several sudden percussive halts. A similar approach is used in the awe-inspiring “The Taming of the Hands That Came Back to Life” as Krug utilizes guitars and synths as a compatible pair, resulting in arguably the most satisfying song on the album.
Krug’s incorporation of synths and guitars take a bizarrely entertaining turn in “Colt Stands Up, Grows Horns”, a song that at times sounds like an hallucinogenic merry-go-round, with its dizzying keys and psychedelic guitar-like synths. In terms of rash unpredictability, “Colt Stands Up, Grows Horns” is yet another example of Krug’s looser tendency to take musical risks. Nearly entirely instrumental apart from the introductory vocals of Camilla Wynne Ingr, it adds a sense of atmospheric diversity; one of the only qualities that Shut Up I Am Dreaming was lacking in some aspects.
One remarkable feature of Random Spirit Lover that I have yet to mention is Krug’s lyrical adeptness. A subtle cultural observer, Krug’s lyrics remain somewhat cryptic and thought-provoking, always highly interpretive. The stab made toward superficiality in “Magic Vs. Midas” is just as the title describes: a contemporary societal comparison of sorts to Midas, a mythological Greek king who could turn anything he touched into gold. “Hey woman, with the gold that you keep or which keeps you in your place”, Krug quivers over piercing keys before cleverly remarking, “Do you recall that it’s just green and copper taste?” Though the majority of Krug’s songs are satirical in nature, his words are often shrouded in amusing and invigorating forms of philosophical wisdom.
Whether it is Krug’s portrayal of religious fanaticism in “Winged/Wicked Things” or his jab at domestication in “Up on Your Leopard, Upon the End of Your Feral Days”, there is rarely a dull moment to be heard on Random Spirit Lover. With Sunset Rubdown’s sprawling third album, Spencer Krug has once again validated his status as one of today’s best indie-rock songwriters. Whether he is writing songs with a supergroup or on his own, it seems that, like King Midas, whatever Spencer Krug touches turns into gold.